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Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

12 AUGUST, 2014

Art, Inc.: A Field Guide to the Psychology and Practicalities of Becoming a Successful Artist

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How to master the business of art without buying into the toxic myth that doing so makes you a lesser artist.

“Art is a form of consciousness,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. But for many working artists, who straddle the balance between creativity and commerce, art swells into a form of uncomfortable self-consciousness — something compounded by a culture that continually pits the two as a tradeoff. Cartoonist Hugh MacLeod captured this perfectly in proclaiming that “art suffers the moment other people start paying for it.” Such sentiments, argues artist Lisa Congdon in Art, Inc.: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist (public library), are among the most toxic myths we subscribe to as a culture and reflect a mentality immeasurably limiting for creative people.

Congdon, a longtime collaborator of mine and a prolific artist herself, offers those looking to make a career in a creative field, wherever they may be along the journey — aspiring artists just discovering their talent, part-time artists trying to transition into full-time, seasoned artists seeking new ideas to reinvigorate an existing career — the necessary tools for defining success by their own standards, then attaining it on their own terms. From practicalities like pricing, marketing, and photographing your work to psychological tussles like dealing with self-doubt, learning to say “no,” and managing the ebb and flow of success, she offers a 360-degree map of the terra incognita that is the modern creative life-cum-living.

Illustration from Lisa Congdon's 'Tender Buttons,' an illustrated inventory of Gertrude Stein's favorite objects. Click image for more.

Interspersed throughout the seven chapters are conversations with established artists, from legendary graphic designer Paula Scher, who shares the semi-serendipitous evolution of her magnificent typographic map paintings, to Nikki McClure, whose exquisite cut-paper illustrations make it hard to believe she is an entirely self-taught former ecologist.

In the foreword, Jonathan Fields, courageous explorer of what it means to lead a good life, observes the resistance so many creative people have to labeling ourselves “artist” — a resistance that bears striking parallels to the way many women relate to the label “feminist.” Reflecting on growing up with a mother who was a gifted potter and painting with great joy throughout his childhood, he writes:

For some reason, when you hit a certain age and a certain level of “seriousness,” and you start calling yourself an “artist,” making a living at it becomes a source of great controversy. People who have nothing to do with the exchange between you and those who would enjoy your work start to pass judgment. Money, they proclaim, bastardizes both the process and the output.

Why this cultural rift emerged, I really don’t know. Maybe it has to do with the establishment of a power and money structure defined largely by gatekeepers and chosen ones — external arbiters controlling not only the flow of eyeballs, but income. Maybe it comes from the ire of those who’ve not yet figured out how to make their calling their profession seeking to tear down those who have, labeling them sellouts and hacks. Maybe it stems from something entirely different.

Whatever the source, what’s become clear to me is that you no longer have to wait to be picked.

Indeed, the precipice to which the internet has pushed creative culture is in large part what makes Congdon’s book so timely and urgently valuable, and her own atypical journey lends her advice hard-earned credibility. Congdon didn’t grow up dreaming of being an artist, nor did she have even a hobbyist’s art practice until her thirties when, struggling to recenter after an eight-year relationship ended, she picked up a paintbrush for the first time since middle school. She took a painting class at the local university’s continued education department and quickly fell in love with art, eventually going from “someone with no art experience and a very basic skill set to someone who now has a full-time career drawing and painting.”

Illustration from Lisa Congdon's 'Whatever You Are, Be a Good One,' a hand-lettered compendium of famous wisdom. Click image for more.

In the introduction, she marvels at the remarkable sense of arriving into herself that art afforded her:

What felt different about art from former pursuits was that I was motivated by something I hadn’t experienced before: an intrinsic desire to create. It was deep-seated and primal; once I discovered it, I had to make art like I had to breathe. From this passion came a desire to expand my skills, even in areas that were out of my comfort zone. I taught myself to use new media and techniques and practiced for hours and hours until my hand felt like it would fall off.

But, in a testament to the idea that getting noticed hinges on actively showing your work, it wasn’t until she started sharing her art online in 2005 that Congdon began connecting with people who would eventually buy it — and this art of sharing art is, not coincidentally, a centerpiece of Congdon’s handbook. Doing that, it seems, is in large part a matter of getting out of your own way creatively. Congdon writes:

While there is no one perfect formula that will work for every artist, I realized there are a few clear paths and work habits that, used in some combination, can lead to consistent, paying, and satisfying work.

[...]

One thing I know for sure is that to be a successful artist, you must start with the simplest proclamation: I am an artist. It’s a basic assertion, but seeing yourself as an artist — legitimate and genuine — can be transformational.

Illustration by Lisa Congdon from 'The Reconstructionists,' our yearlong celebration of remarkable women. Click image for more.

But perhaps Congdon’s most urgently important point has to do with the mythology of what it means and what it takes to be an artist artist. She admonishes against buying into the perilous notion of the “starving artist”:

Much of what separates successful artists from those who struggle is simply their mindset. Struggling artists often create obstacles in their minds by making erroneous assumptions about the way the world works. They give weight to the “starving artist myth”—part conventional belief that pursuing a career as an artist leads to financial struggle and part romanticized notion that art is better when created in a state of deprivation. But the starving artist myth is just that: a myth. And believing in any part of it will keep you from becoming a thriving, working artist.

Creating a flourishing art practice comes from passion, talent, and hard work. Promoting your work means that people will know what you do. And selling your work will support your livelihood and allow you to make even more art. This is the “thriving artist’s mindset.” Artists who possess this mentality are not frightened by the notion of making money. They think in terms of possibility and abundance, not limits and scarcity. They’ve given themselves permission to thrive.

As a vehement opponent of the “starving artist” myth myself, I’ve often marveled at how the inimitable Patti Smith embodies precisely the difference Congdon outlines. Smith was, quite literally, an artist who starved early in her career, as evidenced by her lettuce soup days. But, as Seth Godin once remarked in considering the necessary vulnerability of being an artist, even though Smith was homeless for years — dumpster-diving for food and sleeping on park benches — she never thought of herself as a homeless person; she thought of herself as “an artist who hasn’t found her muse yet.”

Congdon illustrates the difference between these two mindsets, which map rather neatly onto Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s pioneering model of fixed vs. growth mindset.

Ultimately, Congdon suggests that the fusion of creative purpose and financial fruition comes from the integration of our values with the price of success, however we choose to define it. She writes:

Finding equanimity in the midst of our creative and entrepreneurial journeys is truly our life’s work.

Complement Art, Inc. with a lesson from Muppets creator Jim Henson on bridging creative integrity and commercial success and Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson’s wise admonition against buying into the notion of “selling out,” then revisit Anna Deavere Smith’s invaluable advice to aspiring artists.

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11 AUGUST, 2014

David Foster Wallace on Writing, Self-Improvement, and How We Become Who We Are

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“Good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.”

In late 1999, David Foster Wallace — poignant contemplator of death and redemption, tragic prophet of the meaning of life, champion of intelligent entertainment, admonisher against blind ambition, advocate of true leadership — called the office of the prolific writer-about-writing Bryan A. Garner and, declining to be put through to Garner himself, grilled his secretary about her boss. Wallace was working on an extensive essay about Garner’s work and his newly released Dictionary of Modern American Usage. A few weeks later, Garner received a hefty package in the mail — the manuscript of Wallace’s essay, titled “Tense Present,” which was famously rejected by The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, then finally published by Harper’s and included in the 2005 anthology Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Garner later wrote of the review, “a long, laudatory piece”: “It changed my literary life in ways that a book review rarely can.”

Over the course of the exchange, the two struck up a friendship and began an ongoing correspondence, culminating in Garner’s extensive interview with Wallace, conducted on February 3, 2006, in Los Angeles — the kind of conversation that reveals as much about its subject matter, in this case writing and language, as it does about the inner workings of its subject’s psyche. Five years after Wallace’s death, their conversation was published in Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing (public library).

Wallace begins at the beginning, responding to Garner’s request to define good writing:

In the broadest possible sense, writing well means to communicate clearly and interestingly and in a way that feels alive to the reader. Where there’s some kind of relationship between the writer and the reader — even though it’s mediated by a kind of text — there’s an electricity about it.

Wallace, who by the time of the interview had fifteen years of teaching writing and literature under his belt, considers how one might learn this delicate craft:

In my experience with students—talented students of writing — the most important thing for them to remember is that someone who is not them and cannot read their mind is going to have to read this. In order to write effectively, you don’t pretend it’s a letter to some individual you know, but you never forget that what you’re engaged in is a communication to another human being. The bromide associated with this is that the reader cannot read your mind. The reader cannot read your mind. That would be the biggest one.

Probably the second biggest one is learning to pay attention in different ways. Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph.

This act of paying attention, Wallace argues, is a matter of slowing oneself down. Echoing Mary Gordon’s case for writing by hand, he tells Garner:

The writing writing that I do is longhand. . . . The first two or three drafts are always longhand. . . . I can type very much faster than I can write. And writing makes me slow down in a way that helps me pay attention.

In a sentiment that brings to mind Susan Sontag’s beautiful Letter to Borges, in which she defines writing as an act of self-transcendence, Wallace argues for the craft as an antidote to selfishness and self-involvement, and at the same time a springboard for self-improvement:

One of the things that’s good about writing and practicing writing is it’s a great remedy for my natural self-involvement and self-centeredness. . . . When students snap to the fact that there’s such a thing as a really bad writer, a pretty good writer, a great writer — when they start wanting to get better — they start realizing that really learning how to write effectively is, in fact, probably more of a matter of spirit than it is of intellect. I think probably even of verbal facility. And the spirit means I never forget there’s someone on the end of the line, that I owe that person certain allegiances, that I’m sending that person all kinds of messages, only some of which have to do with the actual content of what it is I’m trying to say.

Wallace argues that one of the most important points of awareness, and one of the most shocking to aspiring writers, can be summed up thusly:

“I am not, in and of myself, interesting to a reader. If I want to seem interesting, work has to be done in order to make myself interesting.”

(Vonnegut only compounded the terror when he memorably admonished, “The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.”)

Wallace weighs the question of talent, erring on the side of grit as the quality that sets successful writers apart:

There’s a certain amount of stuff about writing that’s like music or math or certain kinds of sports. Some people really have a knack for this. . . . One of the exciting things about teaching college is you see a couple of them every semester. They’re not always the best writers in the room because the other part of it is it takes a heck of a lot of practice. Gifted, really really gifted writers pick stuff up quicker, but they also usually have a great deal more ego invested in what they write and tend to be more difficult to teach. . . .

Good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.

Despite the prevalence of mindless language usage, Wallace — not one to miss an opportunity to poke some fun at then-President George Bush — makes a case for a yang to the yin of E.B. White’s assertion that the writer’s responsibility is “to lift people up, not lower them down,” arguing that part of that responsibility is also having faith in the reader’s capacities and sensitivities:

Regardless of whom you’re writing for or what you think about the current debased state of the English language, right? — in which the President says things that would embarrass a junior-high-school student — the fact remains that … the average person you’re writing for is an acute, sensitive, attentive, sophisticated reader who will appreciate adroitness, precision, economy, and clarity. Not always, but I think the vast majority of the time.

Learning to write well, with elegance and sensitivity, shouldn’t be reserved for those trying to have a formal career in writing — it also, Wallace points out, immunizes us against the laziness of clichés and vogue expressions:

A vogue word … becomes trendy because a great deal of listening, talking, and writing for many people takes place below the level of consciousness. It happens very fast. They don’t pay it very much attention, and they’ve heard it a lot. It kind of enters into the nervous system. They get the idea, without it ever being conscious, that this is the good, current, credible way to say this, and they spout it back. And for people outside, say, the corporate business world or the advertising world, it becomes very easy to make fun of this kind of stuff. But in fact, probably if we look carefully at ourselves and the way we’re constantly learning language . . . a lot of us are very sloppy in the way that we use language. And another advantage of learning to write better, whether or not you want to do it for a living, is that it makes you pay more attention to this stuff. The downside is stuff begins bugging you that didn’t bug you before. If you’re in the express lane and it says, “10 Items or Less,” you will be bugged because less is actually inferior to fewer for items that are countable. So you can end up being bugged a lot of the time.

But it is still, I think, well worth paying attention. And it does help, I think . . . the more attention one pays, the more one is immune to the worst excesses of vogue words, slang, you know. Which really I think on some level for a lot of listeners or readers, if you use a whole lot of it, you just kind of look like a sheep—somebody who isn’t thinking, but is parroting.

'Paper Typewriter' by Jennifer Collier from 'Art Made from Books.' Click image for more.

He returns to the question of good writing and the deliberate practice it takes to master:

Writing well in the sense of writing something interesting and urgent and alive, that actually has calories in it for the reader — the reader walks away having benefited from the 45 minutes she put into reading the thing — maybe isn’t hard for a certain few. I mean, maybe John Updike’s first drafts are these incredible . . . Apparently Bertrand Russell could just simply sit down and do this. I don’t know anyone who can do that. For me, the cliché that “Writing that appears effortless takes the most work” has been borne out through very unpleasant experience.

In a sentiment that Anne Lamott memorably made, urging that perfectionism is the great enemy of creativity, and Neil Gaiman subsequently echoed in his 8 rules of writing, where he asserted that “perfection is like chasing the horizon,” Wallace adds:

Like any art, probably, the more experience you have with it, the more the horizon of what being really good is . . . the more it recedes. . . . Which you could say is an important part of my education as a writer. If I’m not aware of some deficits, I’m not going to be working hard to try to overcome them. . . .

Like any kind of infinitely rich art, or any infinitely rich medium, like language, the possibilities for improvement are infinite and so are the possibilities for screwing up and ceasing to be good in the ways you want to be good.

Reflecting on the writers he sees as “models of incredibly clear, beautiful, alive, urgent, crackling-with-voltage prose” — he lists William Gass, Don DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick, Louise Erdrich, and Cormac McCarthy — Wallace makes a beautiful case for the gift of encountering, of arriving in the work of that rare writer who not only shares one’s sensibility but also offers an almost spiritual resonance. (For me, those writers include Rebecca Solnit, Dani Shapiro, Susan Sontag, Carl Sagan, E.B White, Anne Lamott, Virginia Woolf.) Wallace puts it elegantly:

If you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers … becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul.

And I sometimes have a hard time understanding how people who don’t have that in their lives make it through the day.

'Flights of Mind' by Vita Wells from 'Art Made from Books.' Click image for more.

Echoing Kandinsky’s thoughts on the spiritual element in art, he adds:

Lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.

But perhaps his most important point is that the act of finding our purpose and finding ourselves is not an A-to-B journey but a dynamic act, one predicated on continually, cyclically getting lost — something we so often, and with such spiritually toxic consequences, forget in a culture where the first thing we ask a stranger is “So, what do you do?” Wallace tells Garner:

I don’t think there’s a person alive who doesn’t have certain passions. I think if you’re lucky, either by genetics or you just get a really good education, you find things that become passions that are just really rich and really good and really joyful, as opposed to the passion being, you know, getting drunk and watching football. Which has its appeals, right? But it is not the sort of calories that get you through your 20s, and then your 30s, and then your 40s, and, “Ooh, here comes death,” you know, the big stuff. . . .

It’s also true that we go through cycles. . . . These are actually good — one’s being larval. . . .

But I think the hard thing to distinguish among my friends is who . . . who’s the 45-year-old who doesn’t know what she likes or what she wants to do? Is she immature? Or is she somebody who’s getting reborn over and over and over again? In a way, that’s rather cool.

Quack This Way is excellent in its entirety, brimming with the very spiritual resonance discussed above. Complement it with this compendium of famous writers’ wisdom on the craft, including Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writing with style, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Susan Sontag’s synthesized wisdom, Chinua Achebe on the writer’s responsibility, Nietzsche’s 10 rules for writers, and Jeanette Winterson on reading and writing.

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07 AUGUST, 2014

Allergy to Originality: Mark Twain and the Remix Nature of All Creative Work, Animated

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Why why all creative culture is built on “plagiarism, literary debt, appropriation, incorporation, retelling, rewriting, recapitulation, revision, reprise…”

When Helen Keller was accused of plagiarism, her dear friend Mark Twain wrote her a heartfelt and lively letter of support, in which he asserted that “all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources” and that “the kernel, the soul … the actual and valuable material of all human utterances [is] plagiarism.” Despite Twain’s characteristically colorful language, the idea that everything is a remix is far from radical — it was pondered by Henry Miller, used by Johannes Gutenberg, abused by Duke Ellington, and championed by Pete Seeger, among countless other instances revealing that all creative work builds on what came before.

Animator Drew Christie brings Twain’s pioneering advocacy of remix culture to life in this delightful illustrated op-doc for The New York Times, titled Allergy to Originality, exploring why all creative culture is built on “plagiarism, literary debt, appropriation, incorporation, retelling, rewriting, recapitulation, revision, reprise, thematic creation, ironic retake, parody, imitation, stylistic debt, pastiches, collages, and deliberate assemblages.”

Complement with the story of how Mark Twain became the Steve Jobs of his day (the latter being in no small part a creative remixer) and young Twain’s irreverent 1865 advice to little girls.

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